NYTimes: Letter From the Middle East: Palestinians build a Political Prisoners Museum

The New York Times,

Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2007

By Daniel Williams

ABU DIS, West Bank — Fahed Abu Haj, curator of the Abu Jihad Palestinian Political Prisoners Museum, greets visitors with a meant-to-shock claim: "The first Palestinian prisoner was Jesus," he says.

With that salvo, Abu Haj introduces a place that is part symbol and part propaganda. The museum reflects a shared experience that Palestinians consider central to building their national identity: Israeli jail.

"There's no question that jail has been a galvanizing force for Palestinians," says Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group. "You would be hard-pressed to find anyone politically active or involved in any way who has not been in prison."

The exhibits at the museum on the campus of Al Quds University near Jerusalem don't explain why people were jailed: for politics, stone-throwing, sabotage, killing soldiers or civilians. It's not the point, Abu Haj says. "This has been a war. We killed them. They killed more of us. They certainly captured more of us."

A 10-year veteran of Israeli prisons, Abu Haj estimates that 650,000 Palestinians have been jailed at one time or another since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, which now have a population of 3.8 million. In response to queries, spokesmen for the Israeli Army and prison service said they did not have any prisoner totals.

The museum opened in April and cost $750,000 to construct. A Kuwaiti charity provided the funds. It is named for Khalil al-Wazir, alias Abu Jihad, a top aide to Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader.

Israeli commandos killed him in Tunis in 1988 while he was promoting a West Bank and Gaza uprising with boycotts, strikes and youths throwing stones at Israeli troops.

Abu Haj, 47, began to collect documents and artifacts from the homes of detainees in 1987. He was jailed in 1978 for commanding forces belonging to Fatah, for many years the leading Palestinian nationalist group.

He says he learned to read in prison. "Israel wanted me to come out a shoeshine boy. Instead, I went to university." He now has a degree from Al Quds.

Abu Haj likens his effort to preserve Palestinian history to the Holocaust History Museum a few kilometers west at Yad Vashem, a memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Germans in World War II.

The Israeli museum opened in 2005. Visitors follow a path in the 4,200-square-meter, or 45,208-square-foot, exhibition space among dead-end rooms that suggest the claustrophobic terror of persecution. Photos of Holocaust victims line a cone that soars 10 meters overhead; their reflections in a pool below symbolize the unknown dead. The path ends at a wide opening that overlooks Jerusalem hill country.

The three-story Palestinian museum comprises 450 square meters. Visitors enter through a concrete arch flanked by cement slabs - replicas of the barrier that Israel is constructing to separate itself and its settlements from the West Bank and Gaza. In the lobby, iron bars frame the museum interior. Pavement is from the Old City of Jerusalem "to emphasize our connection with the city," Abu Haj says.

In one room, concrete beams stand on plastic grass embedded in a red-tile platform. Abu Haj explains: "The beams are the foul things Israel implanted on our land, which has been sanctified by our blood, represented by the tiles."

Photographs of roundups and prisons, lists of 76 torture techniques and portraits of detainees who died in jail - 220 by Abu Haj's count - line ground-floor rooms. Upstairs, an exhibit of arts and crafts includes mockups of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Palestinians' most sacred shrine.

Prisoners' letters are perhaps the most absorbing of the displays.

One dates from 1930, when Palestine was ruled by the British and Palestinians were battling to block Jewish immigration. A man condemned to hang instructs his mother and two brothers not to mourn much because he had reached "the highest honor by dying for the Arab cause in Palestine."

More recently, a prisoner scrawled: "From the heart of terrible suffering and never-ending pain, from Ashkelon Prison, I want to send you, my dears, warm regards."

One notable omission from the museum is any mention of prisoners from Hamas, the movement that defeated Fatah in legislative elections last year.

Fatah and Hamas are longtime rivals for leadership among the Palestinians and Abu Haj is disdainful of the competitor. "Fatah is the creator of the Palestinian revolution, not Hamas," he says.

Hamas, which Israel and the United States regard as a terrorist organization, wants to build an Islamic state comprising Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Fatah favors a separate Palestinian state.

"It's our destiny to negotiate with Israel, but the Israelis say we have blood on our hands," Abu Haj says. "Well, these are the only hands with which to make peace."

Walking down a staircase at the museum, he passes a picture window that looks out over Jerusalem. It offers no city-as-hope metaphor, facing instead the concrete Israeli wall that marks the beginning of the out-of-bounds city.

"We could not have imagined that the view would be part of our exhibits," Abu Haj says.


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